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Journal of

Philosophy and Neurobiology: towards a
Hegelian Contribution on the Question of the
Juridical Status of the Human Embryo
Fernando Huesca Ramón
Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla (BUAP)
National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Fernando Huesca Ramón has Bachelor studies in Biology and Philosophy from the Meritorious Autonomous
University of Puebla (BUAP), Master studies in Philosophy from the National Autonomous University of
Mexico (UNAM), and is currently finishing a doctorate project with the subject: “Political Economy in Hegel:
Capital and ethical life.” His areas of research are Political Economy, Political Philosophy, Aesthetics, Bioethics
and the Philosophy of German Idealism. He currently teaches courses on Aesthetics and Modern Philosophy in
Publication Details
Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics (ISSN: 2166-5087). March, 2014. Volume 2, Issue 1.
Huesca Ramón, Fernando. 2014. “Philosophy and Neurobiology: towards a Hegelian Contribution on the
Question of the Juridical Status of the Human Embryo.” Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics 2 (1): 211–220.

Such Philosophical concepts. —J. the prefrontal cortex. along with personality and subjectivity are essential when discussing and reflecting on the personality or non-personality of a human “embryo. etc. the basal ganglia.W. with Hegel’s notion of “person” (discussions on abortion or use of embryonic cells arise when one tries to attribute or deny personality to a determinate set of cells— that is when one tries to establish the juridical status of a developing human “embryo”) as developed in his Philosophy of Right.Philosophy and Neurobiology: towards a Hegelian Contribution on the Question of the Juridical Status of the Human Embryo Fernando Huesca Ramón Abstract Our purpose in this paper is to show the relevance of Hegelian Philosophy for discussion and reflection on Ethical and Bioethical matters. such as euthanasia. we shall offer a conclusion on the relation (first thinkable and experimentable in our own days) between the central nervous system and Philosophical concepts like person and subjectivity. research on stem cells. utero-rent. Neuroscience.” Keywords Personality. abortion. It has been said. genetic modification of human cells. etc. it has been said that the medical potential. We shall deal. in the sense of saving and improving the quality 212 . that human life deserves an absolute and infinite respect. ultimately. Goethe A lot (and maybe not enough) has been written and discussed in the last year on subjects such as abortion. Finally. euthanasia. processes (mental. on the other hand. then we shall deal with the contribution that Neuroscience can make to the understanding of the material or natural substrate. or spiritual in Hegelian language) related to the Hegelian notion of person rest. cloning. will and rationality in terms of the neural activity of definite brain structures such as the limbic system. subjectivity. on the one hand. in the first place. freedom Despise. fertilization in vitro. understanding and science. etc. the uses of genetic information. on which. in the end. free will. if you will. medical research on stem cells. it will be argued that Hegelian Philosophy offers an optimal model for an understanding of human freedom. The highest of all the treasures of Men – And to the Devil you will have surrendered And must then perish.

And finally. likewise. the definition of the concept of “person” (because. 213 . ideology.” “legality. it be possible to articulate the scientific breakthroughs in areas such as Molecular Biology.. on the basis of the synthesis and systematization pathos that characterizes the philosophical thought of Plato. one comes upon the following boundary concepts: “person.” etc. The quarrelling sides differ on the conceptual referent of such terms. the determinations around the concept of person. on the public health arena there is the question of whether it should be allowed or not that a human being decides on the termination of his own biological life (euthanasia) or on the termination of the life of a human being developing in his (her— properly speaking) own interior (abortion).” “justice. etc. Genetics. there stems out consciousness.  Aristotle. Concerning all these discussions. Adam Smith. Hegel.” etc. and Neuroscience with philosophical subjects such as “personality. when one reflects and discusses upon abortion or embryo-research.” the “will. ethical. in the final count. we shall focus on two central matters: first. We consider that the present posfordist world calls pressingly for a renewed involvement of Philosophy with the medical. if it be the case that the juridical frame of a given territory allows the research potential of the biological sciences and techniques to be set free. two concrete instances: the positive juridical reglaments and the collective frame of ideas (the habits and customs. Marx.).Huesca Ramón of human lives is equally infinite. etc. and second. So. and therefore. the contribution that Neuroscience can make to the understanding of the material or natural substrate which underlies. the dispute arises when personality is attributed or not to a given set of cells). all this on the basis of a formalist (à la Kant) or utilitarian (à la Bentham) argument. our interest in this paper is to show the relevance of Hegelian Dialectics (dialectics. in the end. and legal debates of our days in such a way that. a province.” “right. on the basis of such conceptual referents.) of a given territory (a country. this quarrel has. In the end. simply understood as a worldview which considers that from matter. differ on the concrete practical agenda that must be defended and called for in the social and scientific spheres. etc. Kant. as an arrival or resolution point. we shall offer a couple of concluding remarks on the relation (for the first time thinkable and experimentable in our own days) between the central nervous system and the philosophical concepts of person and subjectivity. In order to accomplish this.” “dignity.” “morality.” “dignity. and from there the conceptual grasp which in turn allows the conformation of matter in accordance to ends) for reflection on and discussion of the subjects listed above concerning the treatment of the human embryo.

freedom. does not allow us to see clearly enough the decisive matter in the Hegelian perspective. it should be confessed that behind every question (and to this day. and of a theological and Christian inspiration (as well an Aristotelian). this definition.” we are. we could preliminary conclude. In other words. In this moment. based upon student notes from the lectures on Philosophy of Right held by Hegel. 2007: 115). firstly. one must have the will to do it. 2. our practical behavior. In this way. All translations in this paper are ours. 1 we have only seen human beings. proceeding from a distant Medieval world. In the final count. any question!). any theoretical question such as the one of the “rationality” of a substance. we consider such a characterization to be the more adequate to the approach to the question on the juridical status of the embryo than the old and even canonical one from Boethius. from 1817 to 1831 in Heidelberg and Berlin. What is relevant in this definition. which considers the person as an “individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethius apud. in light of these brief 1. that. and the concomitant notion of will. in a certain moment. In this paper we use the Philosophy of Right from 1821 (the only one revised and authorized for publication by Hegel himself) and other secondary sources. we answer concisely: just the fact of stating this question (and as a matter of fact. in order to be able to state. 214 . Agazzi. And the will to execute such a cognitive operation (of that later) cannot but be free (the end proposed—to grasp conceptually— cannot but be conceived by the inquirer himself). besides its modern character (in the sense of the History of Philosophy). Therefore. namely. in stating the question for the “being” of the substance. to guide. To the concrete source of this freedom. there arises the question: why should the Hegelian model of reflection centered upon “will” and “freedom” be preferred to the Boethian-Aristotelian one centered upon substantiality and rationality? To the purpose of our argument. Hegel calls precisely will. It may be remarked. spontaneously. above all. in order to continue our reflection. Hegel calls. that Hegel held lectures concerning the Philosophy of Right. Thus. affirming a theoretical effort to conceptually grasp a given aspect of reality. is precisely already the affirmation of that. on the question on personality itself. which. 1983: 223). or of the world in general. broadly. state questions) there is the affirmation of the freedom of someone who sets himself to question. the notion of freedom. and for the ontological necessary conditions for the consideration of a given substance as “rational.Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics I Hegel defines the person as “the singular as free will”2 (Hegel. is that it can be easily linked with current subjects of study and research in Neuroscience. We consider that. which will be the subject of the next section.

et.” (Hegel. what is decisive and essential in the human being (as well as in his social. 1991: 328) Let us turn our attention to how Neuroscience can. In this point we wish to introduce a transition to the biological part of our work. in effect.) which does. In this way. 215 . is the source of right. only a thinking and acting being could declare itself and others as centers of absolute dignity and respect. we could say “genetic constitution”) which determines that the human being be a entity with absolute value and infinite. al. the consideration of the subject of “free will” from the neuroscientific perspective is only possible towards the end of the twentieth century (Pirtosek et. the affirmation of freedom. undertake this question. is one [of] the most complex presentations of human behavior. 1983: 209). Also. etc. indeed.. in order to. 1983: 211). political and economical environment) is precisely. Thus. it is not the natural constitution (and in our own days. (Hegel. they attain an entirely different signification. 1983: 44) and “The freedom of man. because. not as a slave or as a serf). with matters concerning “right”) is direct: “Will. it is his spiritual constitution (that is. take up the question on the juridical status of the embryo. that the source of right and so. afterwards. a system of embodiment of the spiritual. above all]. in making a nature for himself” (Hegel. one may conclude. and acts as such (and so. it should be possible to better understand Hegelian assertions such as “In this rests all the value of man: in that he knows himself as person” (Hegel. following Hegel. thinking. if at all existent. in turn. consists precisely in building his own nature. property and conviction is. free will. nevertheless they constitute. one may add]. but remains [a] poorly studied topic in neuroscience” (Pirtosek. The link of these reflections with legality (that is. nevertheless.” II “Free and conscious decision making. 2009: 42) states a group of Slovene Neuroscientists in 2009. presently. fundamentally. So. of its main determinations as life..Huesca Ramón statements. noted above of the “embodiment of the spiritual. in as much as it thinks itself [as free. Process of decision making was frequently explored from the philosophical and psychological aspect. and with that [in human being. the construction of a theoretical and practical world in which he considers and knows himself as a free being. acting in accordance to ends. al. and not mere substantiality or natural materiality. The basis for establishing such a center of reflection is the following Hegelian fragment: Entrails and organs are considered by Physiology as moments of the animal organism.

its center of gravitation” (Hegel. 2011: 243) of the action itself. and “theoretical spirit” (Enziklopädie §445) have very concrete cerebral referents. et. etc. or an immortal soul (Christianity) to explain the translation of the will to determinate mental or motor movements. etc. 216 . motor and cognitive information” (Pirtosek. or will related to itself. determines from itself) has a physiological basis. as “mesencephalon.” as well as the specific aspects of “what. Such a perspective is to be clearly found in Hegel: “The I determines itself […] This is freedom of the will. motor and cognitive processes. from itself— the reader will forgive the repetition—(and this itself. can determine itself. or consciousness aware of itself3. which in the Hegelian system are studied under the titles of “inclinations and passions” (among others. 1979: 55). is placed within a physiological system of “the spiritual”). in the Phenomenology of spirit.” which may command concrete conducts such as “whether to act or not. So that emotional. in detail. or of a “this side” and an “other side” (the Christian worldview and any other metaphysical ravings).Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics 2009: 38).—see Enziklopädie §474).” “prefrontal cortex. in the final count. spirit. speak to this 3. 2009: 42). therefore.” “lymbic system. one may thoroughly speak of a “volitive system. when and how” (Drubach. even though it is not still completely characterized (Drubach et. this volitive system. of the transmission of “lymbic [that is. an area of research. al. particularly recent and even in its origins.” which integrates information “about a person’s specific needs and wants. al. This is expressed by Neuroscience as follows: “From the non-dualistic perspective decision making is a brain process” (Pirtosek et.” “basal ganglia. will. and constitutes. personal and social norms for behaviour.. reason. from a strictly immanent perspective. al. Hegelian “definitions” of consciousness. current enviromental status. In this way. a perspective that from the beginning rejects flatly the existence of two different substances (res cogitans. If the I. So we can take forward our reflection to the following statement: “free will” (that which. et. memories and effectiveness and consequences of past behaviour as well as a large body of aditional information. 2009: 39). are responsible. What we intend now in this point is to (re)consider the old question of the relation soul (mind)–body.. that is. freedom itself constitutes its own concept or substantiality. “movement” caused by nerves (Enziklopädie §354). can be found there. self-consciousness.. The Hegelian reflection of the “path” from consciousness to science can be found. it is not necessary to invoke any instance such as res cogitans (Descartes).” which. then. In this way. as memory. precisely. emotive]. res extensa in Descartes).. as we saw above. al.

1979: 55) and “A will which does not determinate itself is not a true will” (Hegel. a human being. et. and the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex—see Drubach. This has lead scientists. for itself is the human being only as it is culturally educated reason which has made itself. to the light of this neurobiological reflections. III It is moment to lay down some reflections. in effect “The embryo is. above all.. et. can indeed be associated to determinate areas of the cerebral cortex such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. 2011: 240). the question concerning the juridical status of the embryo. • Hegel and Neuroscience. broadly. coincide.” “disinhibition. in order. • The capacity of the will to assume determinate ends lies in the physiology of the (central) nervous system. as. clearly and distinctly 217 . et.”alteration in “decision making. precisely. conceive. As. what it is in itself” (Hegel. 1986: 25). 2011: 245). specifically the cortical region and concretely in the prefrontal cortex) as the “neurobiological basis” of “free will” (Drubach. combined with a neuroscientific approach.. in itself. impulsivity.. so that the task of a Philosophy (or Ethics to be more precise) of Hegelian inspiration. 2011: 239).Huesca Ramón moment of a “black box”—see Drubach. al. if we follow the Hegelian characterization of the person as a “singular as free will. throughout its development process. consists. the recent and concrete evidence for establishing a correlation between this areas and the “superior” functions associated with free will comes from specific clinical cases in which an alteration of the “normal” function of these areas (caused by mechanical damage or cell degeneration) produces effects such as “poor planning and/or judgement. In this way. And so. as a conclusion.. however. al. al. such as the one sketched above. in effect. implementation and retro-assesement” (Drubach. in these two theses: The fundament of freedom lies on the capacity of the will to assume (that is. it is not. al. and altered goal-oriented action generation. 2011: 245).” we should already possess the sufficient elements to offer a couple of conceptual guidelines in order to consider which juridical status a certain cell group possesses. to undertake finally. the initial Hegelian definition of person as “the singular as free will” should receive a new and intensified clarity. et. the thesis of the neurologists that “The voluntary action starts with determination of the purpose of the action” (Pirtosek. and execute or reject) determinate ends. to consider certain areas of the brain (again. al.. 2009: 49) concurs perfectly with Hegelian theses that read “All the determinations of the will may be called ends” (Hegel. for itself. et. 1979: 64).

The question of the later embryonic development. 2003). an important source of controversies arises precisely around the subject of the marked (or markable) out phases of embryonic development. even approximately. it may be properly spoken of embryo.Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics in dealing with this question: in which specific moment of the embryonic development are the physiological structures to be found. the brain stem and the cerebral hemispheres are not developed until the twelfth week of gestation (Sadler. does not take place? To respond. before the fifteenth of sixteenth development day. structures such as the thalamus. or without whose adequate functioning. the mesencephalon. begins being only a mere aggregate of cells in constant differentiation and division.” do not even exist. In this period. the third ventricle. in the general sense: in any case. which are the original source of all tissues. on the basis of the theory presented above. For instance. one must consider the following: the “new” human being (embryo. one should properly speak of fetus. and organogenesis. organs and systems of the fully developed human being.” In this way. mesoderm and endoderm cell layers. of the union of a maternal ovule with a paternal spermatozoon. the structural origins of the “system of the will. it is not until the period that comprises the third and eighth week of development when the process of organogenesis begins. or in a child or adult. without any doubt. Finally. can contribute the following: • Until before gastrulation. Then. We. that is. before the third week of development does not possess the juridical status of a person in any way. in a newborn baby. Because it does not even possess original or primitive elements of the system of the will. Only after concrete and determinate moments of development. the dialectical-neurological phenomenon of the assumption of determinate ends. • It is until the twelfth week of development when one may speak of the structural existence of the “system of the will. in the most possibly exact way. as one would have to determinate. while in the development staged comprised between the ninth week and birth. and their relation with the notion of personality in the embryo. to this. in the general sense of the term. instances without which it may not be thought or spoken of personality in the proper sense. that is. necessary for the assumption. the moment of development. 218 . the development of the physiological origins of the future organs and systems (fully developed) occurs. execution and rejection of ends. we could conclude: an embryo. may be yet a matter of controversy. As one may tell. in the new human being one can not find the ectoderm. the beginning of the formation and differentiation of organs and systems. the proper definition of embryo shall be given below) product of the fecundation. the formation of these layers is called gastrulation. without which.

are developed and articulated.. See Sadler. 219 . would deserve a special treatment. it may be repeated again. to this date. as the moment in which the central nervous system shows a sufficient development. 4. one may. the in vitro cultivation of embryos for the purpose of research. the right of women to interrupt pregnancy before the third week of development must be tenaciously defended. For example. nor subjectivity. and so. seems to be widely accepted. instances. However. etc. however. one that should include the Hegelian spheres of morality and ethicity. necessary for the full expression of the will. without any fear of damaging any right (as there is not even one neuron in the embryo. one may deduct the practical guidelines on the basis of these premises. defend the right of women to interrupt pregnancy before the twelfth week of embryonic development (because. 2003: 433. and even foster subsequent debates. so as to be able to transmit emotive. Questions such as embryonic cell research. we may add). The twelfth week date. before this moment.Huesca Ramón in which the brain areas involved in the dialectical process of the will. with some reservations. the structural presence of the system of the will is not to be fully found). In the later stages one could endure. the extraction of stem cells from embryos.4 an element without which there does not exist a central nervous system at all. the juridical basis for reflection and discussion would be the same as the one expounded here. neither personality. motor and cognitive information. Finally.

D.” In Dilemas de bioética.F.F. J. Sadler.. freedom of choice and Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration.W. Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts.. Hegel. “El estatus ontológico y ético del embrión humano. Philadelphia: Lippincot Williams & Wilkins. 220 .W. Hegel. Germany: Suhrkamp. Rabinstein. Werke 3. “Free will. Germany: Klett-Cotta. (ed. J..” Brain Mind and Consciousness: An International Interdisciplinary Perspective 9 (1): 238–250.. 2009.” Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems 7 (2): 38–53. Germany: Felix Meiner Verlag. Germany: Suhrkamp. Z. G. D. “Decision making and the brain: Neurologists‘ view. G. Hegel. Langman’s Medical Embryology. Werke 7.W. 1979.W.. Die Philosophie des Rechts. Hegel. Die Mitschriften Wannenmann (Heidelberg 1817/18) und Homeyer (Berlin 1818/1819). Phänomenologie des Geistes.F.). González Valenzuela. 2003. 2001. G. G. 1983.Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics References Agazzi. Gregoric-Kramberger. Mexico: Fondo de cultura económica. T. Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1830). 1991. A. Molano. Drubach.F. M. Georgie . 2007. 1986. E. Pirtosek.